Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Finally the matchup we’ve all been waiting for all season is here. The Heat and Pacers took different paths to get here, and this should make for an interesting series.

Down the stretch of the regular season both teams played relatively subpar basketball, with the Heat finishing at 3-6 in the month of April and the Pacers at 10-13 from March 4th on. Typically you can attribute this kind of play to two teams sitting comfortably atop the conference and resting for the playoffs. Few truly questioned whether Miami would turn it on for the playoffs, and after steamrolling the Bobcats and Nets in 9 games it’s clear that’s what they’ve done. Something has been different about this Pacers team since their scorching hot start to the season, though. There was Roy Hibbert calling out his teammates, rumors of fights between players, and some weirder stuff going on. There was also the trade sending longtime Pacer Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, which many have speculated ruined the team’s chemistry (I think that’s somewhat of a copout, but whatever). While the Pacers have succeeded in advancing this far, it hasn’t been easy. The team played a seven game series against an awful Atlanta Hawks team and looked inconsistent in defeating Washington in six.

So what can we expect from this series? Despite the mind-boggling inconsistency the Pacers have played with for several months, I expect them to look better against Miami. These two teams seem to bring out the best in each other, so I wouldn’t count out the Pacers just because they look like they forgot how to play team basketball for two and a half months. Last year’s series was intensely physical. The Pacers typically try to take the Heat off their game with chippy fouls, but the veteran Heat are usually not too bothered. The important thing for Indiana is Center Roy Hibbert playing like a 7’2″ all star, not playing entire games without recording a point or rebound. Indiana has good size and when Paul George plays like he’s capable of playing they are a tough team to beat. If the Pacers got any positive contribution from the maddening Lance Stephenson it would be an enormous x-factor, but I wouldn’t count on it. His immaturity was on full display in their previous matchup, when Dwyane Wade baited him into a senseless ejection.

It was widely talked about when the Heat took a flier on Greg Oden that he would be their answer to Hibbert, but interestingly the Heat have used Udonis Haslem instead, to relative success. Haslem is a pro’s pro, at times a team enforcer, and his contributions are rarely reflected in box scores, but his defense on Hibbert will be crucial to the Heat returning to the Finals for a fourth straight year. He will be helped by “Birdman” Chris Andersen, who at 35 is as active as ever down low. Otherwise the keys for the Heat are relatively straightforward. LeBron has to be the MVP, scoring, creating for teammates, while locking down Paul George on the defensive end. Wade needs to make the most of his rest days so he can attack the Indiana defense, and it will be important for Chris Bosh to stretch the floor and draw the Pacers’ big men out of the paint.

My prediction for this series isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a victory for Miami, but I do think it will be a better series than most would have you believe. These two teams dislike each other too much for the Heat to roll through the series as they did in the previous two rounds. Look for a lot of hard (dirty-ish) fouls and trash talking, and probably a couple close finishes. I just think the Heat are playing better basketball, maintain their composure better in big games, and have enough three point shooting coming off their bench. At this point it’s hard get a feel for what kind of team these Pacers truly are, and I think the two time defending champs are a considerably safer bet. Oh yeah and they have the best player in the world, which is always a plus. Look for the Heat to win in 6.

Western Conference Finals preview to follow.

Featured image credit: Steve Mitchell Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

What the hell happened yesterday?

Yesterday’s Mother’s Day NBA schedule featured two games that were each wild in their own way, and kind of left me scratching my head as to how the hell they ended how they ended.

The first game happened out west at the Staples Center, with the Clippers pulling off a stunning upset over the Thunder, winning 101-99. That was the kind of game that can turn a series around. There is a world of difference between being down 3-1 and being tied at 2-2, and the Clippers are now right back in it. This despite all the noise coming from their lunatic soon-to-be former owner. The Clippers trailed by as much as 16 with 9 minutes to go, and trailed by 12 with under 8 to go before the Clippers began their run. It started with Chris Paul’s personal 6-0 run, as he continued to show anyone crazy enough to doubt him that he is still the league’s best point guard. From there the Thunder struggled to score for the most part, with Chris Paul amazingly guarding Kevin Durant, forcing him into tough isolation possessions. Blake Griffin’s three point play with 1:50 remaining was one of the two biggest plays of the game for me, as it tied the game, along with Jamal Crawford’s clutch 3 (what else is new) with 1:23 to go. Darren Collison was also terrific in the fourth, scoring 12 points and using his speed in the open court. The Thunder don’t seem to have much of a plan in terms of late game execution on offense, so the crunch time edge will continue to go to the Clippers with Chris Paul’s ability to create off the dribble. Check out this gif of CP3 and DeAndre Jordan connecting on a nice alley oop:

The second game of the day was even weirder to me. The Wizards dropped a crucial game 4 to Indiana 95-92, now heading back to Indy down 3-1. This was a golden opportunity for the Wizards to get right back into this series, but they let it slip away. The opening quarter ended with the Pacers up 27-26, with the game staying mostly in the half court, which favors the Pacers dramatically. It wasn’t until the Wizards’ old guys checked in that Washington went on their run. The AARP club of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and Al Harrington played terrific all night, and looked like they could run away with it after outscoring Indiana 29-11 in the second quarter. But Paul George was the difference as he played his best game so far this postseason, with 39 points and 12 rebounds on 7-10 shooting from the 3 point line. Something is just plain wrong with Roy Hibbert, as he has trouble putting up consecutive quality quarters and repeatedly got blocked in the pain by smaller defenders. Also Lance Stephenson is one of the most erratic players I’ve ever seen, and I wouldn’t want him within a mile of my team, especially after he nearly blew the game with a late, bone headed turnover. Watching this game, you could see Indiana hanging around but all of a sudden they had a lead and you weren’t quite sure how they got there. I’m still far from convinced by this Pacers team, but once again they got it together just enough to survive and move closer to the Easter Conference Finals. John Wall’s awesome, buzzer beating layup to end the first half here for your viewing pleasure:

Both games yesterday were entertaining and sort of befuddling. The Thunder seemed to lose any semblance of a plan in the fourth quarter, and the Wizards managed to squander a vital game on their home court. Both series seem to be heading in different directions, with the Pacers likely to close things out in 5 (though I wouldn’t bet anything on it), and the series out west seems destined to be a 7 game classic. What do you think?

Featured Image Photo Credit: http://galleries.nba.com/gallery/Gamer_Action%3A_May_11

Did the Pacers get their swagger back?

For the last three or so months, it feels like we’ve been watching this Pacers team slowly fall apart, like watching a house of cards shake and wobble, waiting for the inevitable collapse. After a torrid 40-12 start to the season, the Pacers played to a 16-14 record after the All-star break, solid but clearly not the same.

Surely as the top seeded team in the East they should have breezed through the Atlanta Hawks right? The Hawks did everything they could possibly do to surrender that last spot to the Knicks, who politely declined. Hawks GM Danny Ferry even said “We’re not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that’s not our goal.” Yet somehow the Pacers, who forgot how to play team basketball as if the Monstars came and sucked away all their talent, allowed the Hawks to make it a 7 game series, before the Pacers finally put them away.

This second round series vs. Washington will not be any easier. After the Wizards took game one in Indianapolis, there was a media firestorm around the Pacers, specifically on Center Roy Hibbert, and deservedly so. I mean seriously, how is it possible to be a 7’2 all-star center and contribute ZERO points and rebounds in 18 minutes with 5 fouls? This after scoring 37 TOTAL points in a 7 game series. You’d have to try to play that badly, and Hibbert has been doing it for weeks (since he called his teammates out for being selfish). But last night the unexpected happened, and Hibbert was terrific. Twenty-eight points on 10-13 shooting, including 5 early points that set Twitter sarcastically abuzz. The young Wizards held on tight, only to lose after David West’s late free throws and Hibbert’s game-sealing rebound.

So are the Pacers back? Have they righted the ship in time to take down these feisty Wizards? It’s too early to tell, as the Pacers simply could not lose Game 2 at home, and head to what will surely be a raucous crowd in DC. What last night did prove, however, is that the Pacers will only go as far as their big man takes them. If these Pacers want to combat the youth and athleticism of the Wizards, they need to pound the ball inside over and over again. Whatever the Pacers did to spark some life back into Hibbert, they need to keep doing it. Their season depends on it.

Update: Guess this is how they did it http://deadspin.com/a-fishing-trip-fixed-roy-hibbert-1573442701/all?utm_campaign=socialflow_deadspin_twitter&utm_source=deadspin_twitter&utm_medium=socialflow